The Smiths May Need a Little Help

After a disastrous first half, the second half couldn’t have possibly started out better for Matt LaFleur and his Green Bay Packers.  A second-and-16 statement sack of San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo (split by Za’Darius and Preston Smith) highlighted a three-and-out from the defense.  Then, the offense that was dominated by the 49er defense for the entire first half showed its first signs of life.

A 13-play, 65-yard 8:34 drive that included a conversion on fourth-and-four and two helpful San Francisco penalties resulted in a touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams on a wide receiver screen.  After the two-point conversion, the Packers had closed the San Francisco lead to 23-8 with still almost four minutes left in the third quarter.

And then – almost as quickly as hope was re-kindled – it was snuffed out again.

Less than a minute later, San Francisco was lining up with a first-and-ten on their own 39-yard line.  They came out in a three tight end set, with George Kittle and Garrett Celek tight to the formation on the left, and Ross Dwelley tight to the right.  Richie James – the lone wide receiver – was split to the right. Green Bay answered with a cover-3.  Hurt through most of the first half when they tried to play man against the 49ers, Green Bay had switched to zone defenses with the intention of limiting big plays in the passing game.

The play began as a zone run right, as all eight 49ers close to the line began blocking the nearest Packer to their right, while Garoppolo turned to hand the ball to running back Raheem Mostert, also heading to the right.  At the same time, though, wide receiver James came running, right to left, back behind the line of scrimmage, headed up the left sideline.  Unblocked on the offensive left end of the line was Packer pass-rush specialist Preston Smith.  He was hanging back, ready to play a possible cutback by Mostert.

The play, of course, was not a run.  At about the same time that P Smith noticed James racing toward the left flank, he also noticed that Garoppolo did not hand the ball off, but was booting back around to his left – presumably to lob a short pass to the undefended James, who would be racing up the left sideline.

At this point Smith realized that he could not reach Smith in time to prevent the pass, so Preston transitioned into pass defender and began a hopeless pursuit of the fleet James as he turned the corner and headed up-field.

Elsewhere, all three tight ends were headed into the pattern.  Kittle would run the deep post up the left sideline, while Celek would sustain the run action the longest before drifting over the short middle.  But the most problematic route for Green Bay was Dwelley’s.  Running from the right, Ross went about ten yards up-field before breaking back across the middle on a medium crossing route.

That route drew attention from safety Darnell Savage – who had responsibility for one of the intermediate zones.  Critically, though, it also drew the attention of safety Adrian Amos, who saw Savage trailing the route and decided to jump it.

The problem here was that Amos had the deep middle in the cover-3 defense, and as he abandoned that responsibility, he left a gaping void in the middle of the defense.

Cornerback Kevin King, who had endured a frustrating first half in man coverage, was now in a dilly of a pickle.  He was responsible for the deep left in the cover-3.  But he also noticed that Amos was no longer in his deep third.  As Kittle threatened his third of the field, King retreated to stay on top of George’s route.  When he got within three yards of King, George took a step toward the sideline before he stemmed back to the middle – a step that turned King around.  As Kevin was turning, he noticed James also racing up his sideline with Smith trailing well behind him.  King decided to keep defending the left sideline against James, hoping someone else would be over the middle to pick up Kittle.

No one was.

In a play more reminiscent of the practice field than an actual game, Jimmy Garoppolo, standing all alone in the pocket without a pass rusher in the same area code, lobbed a pass to George Kittle, equally isolated, 35 yards downfield.  King and corner Jaire Alexander made desperate attempts to catch him from behind.  To no avail.

The 61-yard touchdown pass completed a two-play drive.  After Green Bay had labored for almost nine minutes to regain the momentum and creep back into the game, San Francisco needed just 57 seconds to silence them.

Another six-minute Green Bay drive ended with a sack on fourth-and-eight, and San Francisco responded with a 10-play, 69-yard touchdown drive of their own that ate 6:31 of the clock and put a bow on their 37-8 victory (gamebook) (summary).

It was a day of answering critics for Garoppolo, who finished with 14 completions in 20 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns – good for a 145.8 passer rating.

But the night really belonged to the 49er defense, which made life uncommonly miserable for one of the great passers of this generation.  Aaron Rodgers finished his night 20 of 33 for just 104 passing yards – an average of 3.15 yards per attempt and 5.2 yards per completion.  Mix in the five sacks, and Green Bay finished averaging 1.9 yards per passing play.

In fact, of Aaron’s 20 completions, 12 of them were to receivers at or behind the line of scrimmage.  The total yards that all of his completions traveled in the air (relative to the line of scrimmage) was an astonishing negative 5.  I believe the furthest downfield he completed a pass was seven yards.

The 49ers, of course, already believe in themselves.  But this was an important win for the rest of us who were a little uncertain about a defense that had given up some yards and some points over the last three weeks.  This game helps me believe in them as a legitimate number one.

As to the Packers, the loss, of course, drops them into a tie in their division with Minnesota – with the remaining game between these teams to be played in Minnesota.

But, beyond that, it may be time to face some legitimate concerns about the Green Bay pass defense.

The Packers opened the season with victories over the Bears, Vikings and Broncos during which the pass defense was outstanding.  Their first three opponents combined to complete 60 of 106 passes (56.6%) for just 671 yards, the one touchdown pass they allowed being offset by 4 interceptions.  Green Bay also picked up 12 quarterback sacks in those games.  Through three games, the passer rating against them was a minuscule 63.1.

Over the last nine games, the narrative has been much different.  In these games, opposing passers have completed 172 of 261 passes (65.9%) for 2338 yards (a concerning 13.59 yards per completion).  They have just 16 sacks over the last 9 games, while serving up 13 touchdown passes and recording just 5 interceptions – a passer rating against of 102.9.

For the season, Green Bay now allows 13.0 yards per completion – the third highest average in the NFL.  After allowing 5 pass plays of more than 20 yards on Sunday night, Green Bay has now given up 43 such plays this year – 18.5% of all the completions they’ve allowed have gone for at least 20.  That is the sixth highest percentage in the league.  Worse than that, the two touchdown passes they allowed were both over 40 yards – the twelfth and thirteenth such passes they’ve given up, tying them with the New York Giants for most 40-yard pass plays allowed.  They are the worst in the NFL as far as percentage of completed passes gaining at least 40 yards at 5.6%.

Against San Francisco they were taken advantage of in both man and zone coverages.  And the one constant in all of the big plays struck against them was Jimmy Garoppolo with all the time in the world in the pocket.

Over the off season, Green Bay bolstered its pass rush with the addition of Preston (signed away from the Washington Redskins) and Za’Darius Smith (no relation, formerly with the Ravens).  Their impact on the defense has been notable.  The Smiths have combined for 10.5 sacks, 19 hurries, and 61 pressures.

Increasingly, though, the problem in Green Bay is that no one else is contributing much to the rush.

The entire rest of the defense has 7.5 sacks, 16 hurries and 43 pressures.  Third on the sack list is Blake Martinez, who recorded his second of the season on Sunday night.  After 34 pressures from Z Smith and 27 more from P Smith, the next closest Packers are Kenny Clark and Kyler Fackrell with 10 each.

With the reminder that to win the division, Green Bay must still go into Minnesota and beat a Viking team that has been shredding opposing pass defenses recently, this is not an encouraging development.

If the Packers are going to reclaim their division, the Smiths are going to need some help.

More Frustration in Dallas

For two very brief moments, Amari Cooper had two very big catches.

With less than two minutes left in the third quarter, Cowboys trailing by four, Cooper finally shook free of Stephon Gilmore on a short crossing route.  Quarterback Dak Prescott dropped the ball perfectly into his hands.

It had been third-and-three from midfield.  By the time Gilmore caught up with Cooper, Amari had gained 15 yards, and the Cowboys were temporarily in business with a first-and-ten at the New England 35.  A holding call on tackle Tyron Smith deleted the gain, and pushed Dallas back to its own 40 – third and 13.

Two Cowboy pre-snap penalties later, and they were punting, fourth-and-23, from their own 30 yard line.

That disappointment was a preamble to Amari’s other catch that wasn’t.

Now it’s the fourth quarter, Dallas still down by 4 and down to their last gasp.  It is fourth-and-11 from their own 25 with 1:50 left in the game.  On a drizzly cold evening, where the temperature hovered in the mid- to upper-30s, Prescott delivered a pass over the middle – placed where only Amari could get it.  It was a difficult catch, to be sure.

Cooper laid out for the pass, cradling it into his body as he descended – a catch.  A 20-yard pass play that extended the game.  Or so it seemed.  As the play was reviewed, it became apparent that Cooper never really controlled the ball, which bounced off the turf just at the end of the play.

The catch was overturned.  Cooper finished the night with no catches and two targets. The ball was given to New England, and 1:44 of football time later, the Patriots left the field with a tightly contested 13-9 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Patience is now wearing thin in Dallas – where the Cowboys have fallen to 6-5.  It is still enough to keep them in the lead in their division (and as I watch Philadelphia struggle to find anything that works on offense, I am less and less convinced that they can supplant the Cowboys, even though they are only one game behind at the moment and have the Week 16 game against Dallas in Philadelphia).

The supposition has been that Philadelphia’s relatively easy schedule and the home game against the Cowboys gives them a significant advantage.  While Dallas’ schedule appears harder on paper, it is, in fact, a series of winnable games against somewhat fading opponents.

But, while the Cowboy playoff hopes are not in grave danger yet, a 10-6 (or maybe even a 9-7) fourth-seeded team is hardly what Jerry Jones had in mind when he put this team together.

And, I understand his frustration.  Dallas is a puzzling team.  They have had their way with the struggling teams on their schedule (with the exception of a dumfounding loss to the Jets in Week Six).  Other than the Jet game, all of Dallas’ other losses have been to teams in football’s top echelon – the Saints, the Packers, the Viking and now the Patriots.  These are teams that everyone loses to.  The problem, of course, is that Jerry expected his team to be in that grouping, and to be capable of winning their share of those games.

The game itself was less than artistic, with the rain playing havoc with the passing game of both teams.  Prescott finished with a 64.2 rating on 19 of 33 passing for 212 yards and 1 interception.  New England’s Tom Brady finished 17 for 37 for 190 yards and 1 touchdown – a 70.8 rating.  But both quarterbacks threw the ball better than that.  Both saw balls slide through the hands of usually sure-handed receivers.

The game’s only touchdown – a 10-yard pass from Brady to rookie N’Keal Harry in the waning seconds of the first quarter – came two plays after a blocked punt set the Patriots up on the Dallas 12-yard line.

For the Patriots defense, this was an encouraging performance.  After dominating a series of flailing offenses to begin the season, New England was handed its lunch by Baltimore two weeks ago – enough history to raise questions about how good this defense really was.  On Sunday afternoon, against the top ranked offense (including the NFL’s top ranked passing game), the Patriot defense rose to the challenge.

Yes, the weather helped, but even without that, it was clear that the Dallas receivers were struggling to separate from the New England defenders, and even the talented Cowboy offensive line had difficulties keeping New England off of Prescott.  Dallas had moments where it looked like they could hurt New England with the run – and they finished with 109 rushing yards and a 4.2 average.  But they were just 2-for-13 on third down, and couldn’t sustain their drives.

At the end of the day, both teams followed familiar patterns.  Dallas is now 1-4 in one score games.  The Patriots are 3-0 in those games.

Colts Manage to Lose

Playing in Houston on Thursday night, the Indianapolis Colts had their opportunity to take a big step toward the division title.  Both teams came into the game 6-4, with Indy having taken the earlier meeting between these two teams.  A road win here against Houston would give them a virtual two-game lead over the Texans.

In so many ways over the course of the game, the Colts showed themselves to be the better of the two teams.  They dominated time of possession in the first half, as they ran the clock for 18:32, rushing for 70 yards while holding Houston to just 35 yards on the ground.  They continued to punch Houston in the running game throughout the second half, piling up another 105 rushing yards on 22 carries.  They took a 17-10, third quarter lead on a 66-yard drive that took 11 plays – 10 of them runs.  They didn’t punt at all in the second half.

And yet, they managed to lose the game, 20-17 (gamebook) (summary).

The glaring difference in the second half was production from the passing game.  Houston’s Deshaun Watson completed 9 of 15 for 182 second half yards – including the game-winning, 30-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins in the fourth quarter.  Indy’s Jacoby Brissett was just 3 for 7 for 25 yards. The Colts gained just 130 total yards in the second half, gaining no more than 13 yards on any of their final 29 plays.

The Colts talk about Brissett as though he were a franchise quarterback.  All too frequently, though, he looks like the backup quarterback that Indy was stuck with when Andrew Luck retired.  Yes, he is playing under some disadvantage.  His number one receiver T.Y. Hilton has been banged up (he was only on the field for 25 plays), and his number two receiver Devin Funchess has been missing with an injury since early in the season.  Of course that impacts the passing game.

But other franchise quarterbacks have been asked to play with stripped down receiving corps – Carson Wentz is one – and they still manage to make the occasional big play.  Indianapolis is a very solid team everywhere you look – except, perhaps, at quarterback.

Even with the loss, Indianapolis’ chances at the division title are still pretty good.  The whole division is a scrum.  The Texans are currently 7-4, with the Colts (6-5), Titans (also 6-5) and Jaguars (4-7) all bunched pretty tightly.  No one from here is going to win out.

What the Colts have in their back pocket is that this week’s critical game against Tennessee is in Indy.  The Colts have already beaten the Titans in Tennessee this year (19-17 in Week Two).  If they can take care of business at home, they will finish their round-robin play against their top two competitors at 3-1 – and if all three finish tied (a not unlikely scenario) – that record will be the first tie breaker.

If Tennessee rises up Sunday afternoon and evens their score against the Colts, then the entire AFC South will be thrown into chaos.

Three Games to Decide the North

With the Packers’ thumping Sunday night in San Francisco, the NFC North is a dead-heat between Green Bay and the Minnesota Vikings – both now 8-3.  The Packers beat the Vikings in Green Bay (21-16) in Week Two, and are currently leading the division by that tie-breaker.  The re-match, though, is coming in Minnesota in Week 16.  With the Vikings playing much better lately, and the Packers not as well as they were in Week Two, it’s not difficult imagining the Vikings winning this game and the division crown with it.

Two other interesting games to keep your eyes on in this division.  This week, coming off their bye, the Vikings go into Seattle – always a significant challenge.  The other game to keep an eye on is the Week 17 matchup between the Packers at the Detroit Lions.  The Lions have had a disappointing season, and may not have Matthew Stafford back for that game.  But the Lions have been playing with considerable pride and have kept most of their games close.  Ten of their eleven games this year have been one-score affairs, including a 34-30 loss to Kansas City and a 23-22 loss in Green Bay.

If the division title is still up for grabs in Week 17, I wouldn’t put it past Detroit (playing at home) to upset the Pack and send the Viking into the playoffs as the number three seed and make Green Bay play as a wild card.

All Lamar, All the Time

I’m not sure that I have ever seen this before.

There is 10:47 left in the second quarter of a still scoreless game.  Baltimore is driving toward its first score – it is first-and-ten at the Houston 31-yard line.

The Ravens had only one wide receiver on the field – Seth Roberts – who was split wide to the left.  He and Houston’s Lonnie Johnson were the only players on the field that were left of the left hashmark.  The other 20 players were all bunched between that hash and the numbers on the right. (Parenthetically, both of the Ravens’ longest runs of the day would come from this same look.)

Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson was in his beloved pistol with Mark Ingram directly behind him as the tailback, and Patrick Ricard just to his right as the fullback.  Tight ends Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle were tight to the formation on the right.

The left side of the line (Ronnie Stanley, Bradley Bozeman and Matt Skura) singled up on outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, defensive end Charles Omenihu and inside linebacker Zach Cunningham (who spent much of his afternoon trying to spy on Jackson), respectively.

With defensive lineman D.J. Reader lined up over right tackle Orlando Brown, he was double-teamed by both Brown and Marshal Yanda, the right guard.  Hurst took care of linebacker Brennan Scarlett, and Ricard went through to take the middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney (who had a very long afternoon) out of the play.  And let me point out here that throughout the game the Houston linemen made very little effort to tie up the Raven offensive linemen.  McKinney was under siege the entire game.

All of this left Houston’s other defensive lineman, Brandon Dunn – listed at 310 pounds – standing for a brief second unblocked at the point of attack.  Until tight end Boyle came through the hole and drove him out.  Ingram – the ballcarrier on this play – scooted in right behind Boyle.

The gain was a modest 4 yards, but the design was a novelty.  Boyle didn’t accidentally end up on Dunn because the design of the play went awry.  The design was for Boyle to single up on the nose tackle and beat him.

Football’s tight end is a hybrid position.  He is an eligible receiver, so catching passes is an important part of his function.  He is also a sixth offensive lineman, of sorts.  They are frequently called on to pass block and even more frequently to block for the running game.  Obviously, throughout the league, some are better at one assignment than the other.

When the tight end blocks, it is usually against outside linebackers – players who are quicker than they are big – or undersized defensive ends.  It is not uncommon to see them join with a tackle in double-teaming some end.  Their most important contribution to the running game usually is pinning the end inside, setting the corner for an outside run.

Until Sunday, though, I don’t think I have ever seen a tight end asked to blow a nose tackle off of the point of attack.  And there was no chicken fighting going on here.  Boyle wasn’t just getting in his way.  Nick lowered his left shoulder and buried himself into Dunn, driving him a good three yards off the line and wedging open the hole for Ingram.

Always, these days, when the Baltimore highlights are played it is all Lamar all the time.  It’s like he turns every play into a punt return, and his faster-than-the-speed-of-thought changes of direction and his almost super-human acceleration do make for electrifying viewing.  But the revolution in Baltimore is about more than just re-prioritizing the role of the quarterback.  A lot of what’s going on in Baltimore involves the evolving function of the tight end.

The Ravens have three who get significant playing time.  Boyle (66% of the offensive snaps), Hurst (40%) and Mark Andrews (47%).  They are frequently all on the field at the same time.  In the on-going chess match that is the NFL, coach John Harbaugh is using his tight ends like knights.  They do unexpected things and have to be accounted for on every play.

While Boyle is the best, all of them block – and, apparently Harbaugh isn’t afraid to let Boyle, at least, take on anyone on the field.  They transition seamlessly when they play changes suddenly from a passing play to a run.

And they have become Lamar’s primary weapons in the passing game.  Together, the Baltimore tight ends have 44% of the targets in the passing game (125 of 284), 46.2% of the completions (91 of 197), 45.2% of the passing yards (1060 of 2346), and 40% of the passing touchdowns (8 of 12).  The tight ends have caught 72.8% of their targets (91 of 125).

They are all particularly adept at elevating above defenders and all have excellent hands.  Of the three, only Andrews has dropped passes this season (he has 5 drops).

All of this adds to the reasons why defenses that rely on man coverage should rethink this strategy when opposing Baltimore.  In their 41-7 drubbing at the hands of the Ravens (gamebook) (summary), Houston played a lot of man coverage – and was hurt in all of the following ways.

First, man coverage easily allows Baltimore to move defenders out of half of the field they intend to run to.  On several occasions, Willie Snead’s crossing routes served only to pull Justin Reid from one side of the field to another.  On the first play of the second quarter, both Snead and Boyle went in motion (at separate times, of course) to pull Reid and Tashaun Gipson from the offensive right side to the offensive left.  Ingram ran to the right side for 11 yards.

Man coverage, of course, also forces defenders to turn their back to the quarterback.  With many quarterbacks, this is not much of an issue.  With Lamar Jackson it is a dangerous approach.  During the game against Houston, Jackson had three scrambles out of passing formation that went for 12 or more yards.  All of them came against man coverage schemes.

If you are going to spy on Jackson – and Houston tried what looked like a double-spy system, with Cunningham and a linebacker (Martin or McKinney) – then that strips the other defenders of their help over the top.  Spying on Jackson is a mostly unworkable concept, as few linebackers – or even defensive backs, for that matter – can keep up with Lamar in the open field.

And, finally, man coverage means – in this case – covering the tight ends.  Mostly, you play man coverage because you have several talented cornerbacks who can match up well with the wide receivers on the other side.  Baltimore has a talented core of defensive backs and they play a lot of man coverage.  Not too many teams can man up against a talented tight end.  Against Baltimore, you would have to be able to play man coverage against three talented tight ends.  They hurt Houston to the tune of 8 receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown.

Zone defense comes with its own set of issues.  Play-action can cause widened gaps in between the zones.  Also, Lamar has gotten very adept at dumping short passes to running backs underneath the zone.  Still, given the choice between keeping Lamar in the pocket with all eyes on him, or having your defenders trying to play man while keeping an eye on Jackson, the choice should be pretty clear.

Make them crawl.  Short runs, short passes, 14-play drives, and see if they will make a mistake along the way.

And, if that mistake should be a holding call, it would be nice if the officials would flag them.

Are the Officials Mesmerized by Jackson?

Something that I’ve been noticing recently is that among all the things going right for the Ravens right now, the officials seem to be on their side as well.  Yes, of course, I’m referring to the missed pass interference penalties – offensive and defensive – that cost Houston one touchdown and gift-wrapped another for the Ravens.  But this team (Baltimore) doesn’t even get called for the occasional holding penalty.  It’s not that they don’t commit them. They just don’t get flagged for them.

The most egregious missed holding call that I noticed came on a 9-yard run from Ingram with 4:44 left in the third quarter.  Yanda (who looks like he’s borderline on the holding call on almost every snap) put hands on both of Reader’s shoulders and pulled him away from the play.  But there were a half-dozen or so other incidents that are sometimes flagged that just never are with Baltimore.

On a 12-yard scramble by Jackson with 5:15 left in the second quarter, Lamar darted through a small gap between his left guard Bozeman (who had his arms completely around Angelo Blackson) and center Skura (who had two fists full of Brandon Dunn’s jersey).  On his (Jackson’s) 39-yard scramble in the third, Skura did briefly grab Reader’s arm and prevent him for just a second from pursuing the play.  I’ve seen less than that called before.

A lot of these events are the marginal kinds of activity that don’t always draw flags, but do sometimes.  Except when Baltimore is doing the holding.  They finished the Houston game with 36 running plays and no holding penalties.  They ran the ball 23 times against Cincinnati the week before, and 41 times against New England the week before that – again with no holding calls.

I didn’t go back further than that, but I did notice that over the last three games Baltimore hasn’t even drawn a holding penalty on any of their passing plays.  Now, I get that these guys are a talented bunch, and that they are exceptionally well coached.  But still that is at least 175 consecutive snaps – 100 of them runs – with no holding penalties?  Really?

About That Pass Interference Challenge

Toward the end of the first period, Raven defensive back Marlon Humphrey began tackling DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone before the ball arrived.  The penalty, of course, was missed by the officials, and coach Bill O’Brien – with unwarranted faith in the system – threw his challenge flag.  Sometime thereafter, Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone watched Indianapolis corner Rock Ya-Sin grab the back of receiver DJ Chark’s jersey.  The officials missed this one as well, and the trusting Mr. Marrone threw his challenge flag too.  In spite of the fact that the pass interference was clear on both of these plays, both coaches lost their challenge.

But just at the point where you are ready to write the new pass interference challenge rule off as a scam, San Francisco’s Richard Sherman pulls Arizona’s Christian Kirk down in the end zone in one of the late games – a penalty again missed by the on field officials.  Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury threw his challenge flag.

Sherman’s penalty was no more flagrant than Humphrey’s or Ya-Sin’s.  In fact, you could probably say that it was less obvious than the penalty committed by Humphrey on Hopkins.  But Kingsbury won his challenge and got the penalty.

It’s almost enough to drive a coach bats.  How can the same person look at all of these challenged penalties and reverse only this one?  The answer, I believe, is that it is not the same person reviewing all of these plays.

For every game, the NFL assigns a replay official.  They don’t make a big deal about this individual’s identity, but it can be discovered.  I have, in fact, looked up the names of all three replay officials, and am ready to name names.

The replay official for the Arizona-San Francisco game is a man named Brian Matoren.  As opposed to most of the New York replay officials, Brian gave a good faith review of the play.  He actually watched the play to see if pass interference had occurred, and ruled on the play accordingly – giving this challenge the same respect that he would give to any other challenge.

But Michael Chase (who had the Houston-Baltimore game) and Carl Madsen (who had the Jacksonville-Indianapolis game) betrayed the good faith of the coaches and fans of the NFL.  Instead of actually reviewing the play (they may not have even watched it) they ignored the fact that both of the receivers in question were interfered with and dismissed the challenge.

Pass interference is missed all the time in the NFL.  Occasionally, it is also called when no interference occurs.  This year, the NFL offices have given the coaches the gift of asking for a second look at some of the potential pass interference penalties that eluded the on field officials.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of replay officials (including Madsen and Chase) are fundamentally dishonest in regards to their responsibility to the NFL fans and coaches.  I don’t fully understand the reason behind their unwillingness to fairly review pass interference challenges, but their failure to do so compromises the integrity of the NFL and its policies.

As the season progresses, I will continue to name names and keep a list – a naughty or nice list, if you will.  It will be interesting to see if a consistent pattern emerges.

Always Drama in New England

At our first glance at the replay, we knew the call would be overturned and the Eagles would score the game’s first touchdown.

On a play eerily reminiscent of the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl 52 between these two teams, Dallas Goedert battled for a pass from Carson Wentz at the goal line with New England defender Jonathan Jones.  In the end zone, Jones came away with the football, and the play was ruled an interception.  For the moment.  Clearly on replay, Goedert carried the ball over the line and only lost possession after the play should have been over.  In an easy reversal, the Eagles pushed their advantage to 10-0.

And suddenly, we were worried – temporarily, anyway – about the New England Patriots.

Three weeks earlier, the defending world champs had brushed off the Cleveland Browns by a 27-13 score.  At that point, they were 8-0 and with a defense that was on several record paces.  The fact, though, was that their early season schedule was so soft that it was hard to tell how good this defense really was.

Then, two weeks before the Philadelphia game, the Patriots were slapped around by Baltimore, 37-20.  This beating was followed with a bye week for Bill Belichick and his team.  Now they were in Philadelphia, where the desperate Eagles were having their way with them.  The Goedert touchdown polished off one of the most impressive drives imaginable.

Beginning on their own 5 yard line with 7:09 left in the first quarter, the Eagles moved 95 yards on the Patriots, the drive consuming 16 plays (8 runs and 8 passes) and an eye-opening 9 minutes and 33 seconds of clock time.

Meanwhile, in their first two possessions of the game, the Patriots had failed to get past their own 40-yard line, managing just 29 yards and two first downs on 9 plays.  The Eagles chalked up 8 first downs on the touchdown drive, alone.

There was still a lot of football to play, but at that point New England was suddenly looking very average.

As unlikely as it seemed at the moment, Philadelphia wouldn’t score again.  Out of the rubble of that drive, the New England defense re-asserted itself.  The next 8 Eagle possessions would end in 7 punts and one turnover.  Their next 21 plays would earn just 34 yards.

The Patriots finished the half allowing no more than 8 yards on any running play, and sacking Wentz 4 times. After completing 11 of 16 first half passes, Wentz was just 9 for 24 (37.5%) after the intermission.

Philadelphia finished the game with just 255 total yards (a season-low), averaging just 3.9 yards per offensive play.  Thus that one drive accounted for 37% of the offense the Eagles would managed all day.

As they have done so often, New England came back to pull the game out, 17-10 (gamebook) (summary).  The Patriots opened the second half with an 84-yard drive, capped by a touchdown pass from Julian Edelman to Phillip Dorsett.  That pass (and the two point conversion that followed) ended the scoring for the afternoon with still 10:55 left in the third quarter.

In the aftermath, there are new questions in New England.  With the defense seeming (for the moment, anyway) to have righted itself, there is fresh concern over the Gronk-less offense.

In the first half of the Eagle game, New England managed just one play of over 20 yards (a 22-yard pass to Ben Watson), while quarterback Tom Brady struggled to a 55.9 passer rating on 11 for 25 passing.

For the game, Brady picked up just 216 passing yards on his 26 completions – a very un-Brady-like 8.31 per.  During that opening drive of the second half, a shovel-pass from Brady to fullback Rex Burkhead sprung for thirty yards.  It was the only play of 20 or more yards for New England in the half, and only the second of the game.  At 15 yards, the touchdown pass Edelman threw was longer that any of the passes that he caught.

Over the offseason, Tight end Rob Gronkowski retired, and ever since New England has struggled to get production from the position.  With his big game on Sunday (3 catches for 52 yards), the 39-year-old Watson now leads all New England tight ends with 11 catches for 124 yards.  That’s for the season.

In one 2015 game against the Jets, Mr Gronkowski finished with 11 catches.  In that one game.  As for Watson’s 124 receiving yards, Rob had 9 regular season games (and 2 more playoff games) that exceeded that total.  He had three games with 160 or more receiving yards.

Brady’s 97.7 passer rating from last year has faded to 90.1 ten games into this season.  Rob has also been missed in the running game – now ranked twenty-fourth in the NFL after ranking fifth last year.

So this is certainly an adjustment.  I understand about 25% of Bostonians are on a suicide watch if Gronk isn’t back in the lineup by the playoffs.

So, at this point, I think it’s important to note that this New England team is still 9-1 and currently holding the AFC’s top playoff spot.  While not suggesting that there are no issues to address, I remind New England fans that every season is a process for the Patriots.  It’s unusual that the offense should still be searching for its identity.  Usually it is the defense that takes a while to get its ducks in a row.  Last year, this New England team lost its Week 14 game to Miami 34-33, surrendering 412 yards to the Dolphins.

Two months later, they were shutting down the Rams in the Super Bowl.  Even during their recent struggles, nothing suggests to me that the Patriots are in danger of slipping back into the pack anytime soon.

Neanderthal Rams?

As for the other team in last year’s big game, the Los Angeles Rams were engaged in a defensive struggle of their own.

After New England had lost their afternoon game in Miami in Week 14 last year, the Rams played the Sunday night contest in Chicago.  They were 11-1 as they entered the contest.  The Bears were 8-4.  Both were first place teams, heading for the playoffs.

What a difference a year makes.

Last Sunday, the Bears and Rams played on Sunday Night Football again, this time in Los Angeles.  The Bears were 4-5 coming in, and the Rams were 5-4.  Neither is likely to get a playoff invitation.

Fighting for their lives, the Bears came out and played a nearly perfect first half.  They took the ball away from the Rams in both of LA’s first two offensive series.  They didn’t fumble.  They committed no penalties.  And they controlled the clock for 18:00 of the half.

They did everything but score.

They threw incomplete on one fourth down, and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky tossed an interception of his own.  And, oh yes, they missed two more field goals.  The Rams went into the locker room at the half holding a 10-0 lead, on their way to a 17-7 victory (gamebook) (summary).

The blood is in the water as far as Trubisky is concerned.  11-3 last year with a 95.4 quarterback rating, Mitch has seen that rating slide to 82.2 this year on the heels of his 24 for 43, 190 yard performance Sunday night.  It hasn’t been Mitch’s best year, but it’s difficult to lay all of this game’s frustration on his shoulders.  With Ram superstar Aaron Donald dominating the line, Mitch spent the evening running for his life.  Top receiver Allen Robinson was mostly worn out by new Ram cornerback Jalen Ramsey.  Robinson finished with 4 catches for 15 yards.  A 19-yard outlet pass to running back David Montgomery was Chicago’s longest play of the night.

While it’s back to the drawing board for the Bears, the Rams, now 6-4, are still on the periphery of the playoff hunt – although their chances aren’t very good.  However that pans out, one of the most interesting developments from the game was the drastic shift in their offensive philosophy.

With an offensive line shuffled due to injury, the Rams moved from a zone run team to a more downhill, double-team, smash-mouth running attack.  Whether it worked or not depends on which set of numbers you care to look at.  For the game, LA averaged just 3.2 yards per rush, with Todd Gurley managing just 3.9 per carry.  So they didn’t exactly gash the Chicago defense.

As interesting as the new style of running was the prominence the game plan placed on the running game.  Quarterback Jared Goff threw only 6 passes in the first half, and just 18 for the game.  Gurley’s 97 rushing yards were his most since he ran for the same yardage in Week One against Carolina, and his 25 rushes from scrimmage were his most since he carried 25 times against Green Bay in Week Eight of last year.

For a few hours last Sunday night, the Rams became Neanderthals, running the ball 34 times.  Those were the second most rushing attempts from the Rams this season (they ran 36 times against the Falcons in Week 7).  Throughout the entire second half, they stubbornly ran the ball right into the teeth of Chicago’s six-man fronts – 18 running plays for just 37 yards.

Whether this is a trend they will continue will be interesting to see.  Their next game is against football’s top Neanderthal team, as they will host Baltimore next Sunday.  The Ravens currently rank seventh against the run (allowing 94.3 yards per game).  But few teams have run against them the whole game.  Two teams that did are the two teams that have beaten the Ravens.  Kansas City ran for 140 yards against them, and Cleveland tacked on 193.

Punching that defense in the nose might not be a bad strategy.

Playoff Impact – AFC

With last night’s victory, Houston earned a split with Indianapolis this season, and regained a one game lead in the AFC South.  The game carried an air of being the decisive game in the division, but I am less than convinced.  The Colts have stumbled a bit of late, with last week’s victory over Jacksonville surrounded by losses in Pittsburgh, at home to Miami, and now in Houston.

Here’s the thing the Colts still have in their back pocket.  Last night’s game was the end of their tough stretch.  In Week 15 they visit New Orleans in a game they should lose, but the rest of their schedule is very winnable.  Their remaining road games (other than the Saints) are in Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.  They also play the sometimes difficult Carolina team, but that game will be at home.

The Texans will also play in Tampa Bay, but I’m less convinced that they will take care of business there.  Houston also has a game against New England and they will play Tennessee twice in the last three weeks.  Houston is one of those teams that always seems to find a way to lose a late season game that it needs to win.

For the moment, I’m still siding with Indianapolis to win the division, with Houston taking a wild card spot from Buffalo.

The Bills are 7-3 at the moment, and should beat Denver to go 8-3.  Thereafter, though, their schedule gets brutal: at Dallas, home against Baltimore, in Pittsburgh, and in New England.  They finish up at home against the Jets, but I am not at all convinced that Buffalo can handle the brutal stretch of its season.

NFC Still Muddy

I am still hesitant to put an order to the NFC until I have a better idea of who the 49ers really are.  They have Green Bay coming up on Sunday night, and that game should give some idea about both of those teams.

The Chief Offense Must Do More to Protect its Run Defense

On the game’s signature running play, no one blocked Chris Jones.

The play – a zone run to the offensive left – began with the ball marked on the right hashmark.  By the time Tennessee power back Derrick Henry cut the run back upfield, nine of the eleven tiring Kansas City defenders had flowed past the left hashmark.  When Henry cut back, there were only two Chiefs on that half of the field; cornerback Bashaud Breeland – who was downfield in coverage – and Jones – the only KC defender who was playing the possible cut back.

Breeland couldn’t make his way around Tennessee receiver A.J. Brown, and was never a factor.  Playing the potential for a deeper cutback, Jones was too far away from Henry to do anything other make a futile dive at his feet.  Although running to his right, safety Juan Thornhill was able to stop and position himself directly in front of the hard-charging Titan hammerback.  Thornhill – who lists at just 205 pounds – make a desperation dive at Henry’s feet, but Derrick easily hopped over the attempt and sprinted the rest of the way untouched – a 68-yard touchdown run.

In his first game back after missing a couple of weeks with a knee injury, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes showed a little rust.  He threw several balls high.  But nonetheless led a very productive offensive attack.  He ended up throwing for 446 yards and three touchdowns, while leading the Chiefs to 530 yards of total offense and 32 points.  The points could have been more, were it not for two botched field goal attempts on back to back fourth-quarter drives.

But for all of this, Kansas City lost for the fourth time in ten games this season, 35-32 (gamebook) (summary).  As they head into their Monday Night game against the Chargers, they Chiefs rank twenty-second in the league in total defense.  They have now allowed 12 rushing touchdowns – the fifth highest total in the league – and 288 rushing attempts against them – the fourth highest total in the league.  The 5.1 yards they average per rushing attempt against is the thirtieth best average in the league, and – allowing 148.1 rushing yards per game – Kansas City is only the thirty-first ranked rushing defense in the NFL.

The glaring weakness suggested by these numbers was fully and completely exploited by Tennessee last week.  Take away the long touchdown run, and Tennessee still piled up 109 rushing yards on 16 carries (6.8 yards per carry).  And that was just the second half.  Tennessee finished the contest with 225 yards on the ground, and 2 rushing touchdowns.  This is now the second time this season Kansas City has served up more than 200 rushing yards, and the fifth time in ten games that they have been shredded for at least 180 rushing yards.

When you watch them on film, there is no mystery behind this.  The Chiefs are a small defense, built for quickness and rushing the passer.  Safeties Thornhill and Tyrann Mathieu are among the least physical safeties in the NFL, and the defensive line features pass-rush specialists like Frank Clark who are decided liabilities against the run.

Kansas City does have a few big defenders on its roster – Khalen Saunders is listed at 324 and Derrick Nnadi is reported at 312.  Both are quite young – Nnadi drafted in the third round last year, and Saunders was this year’s third rounder – and neither is as effective against the run as the Chiefs may have hoped.

In a more representative run, with 9:27 left in the game, Titans guards Nate Davis and Rodger Saffold drove Nandi and Saunders (respectively) straight up the field, while tackle Jack Conklin popped unobstructed into the second level where he deleted linebacker Reggie Ragland from the equation – just another 12-yard run from Henry.

I can’t really think what KC can do at this point to shore up this weakness, so it will become imperative as the season winds its way down that the offense protect the run defense.  There are two ways this can be done.

The first is with a grinding, ball control offense – one that will run the clock and keep the smallish defense resting on the sidelines.  The Super Bowl winning Dallas teams of the early 1990’s won with a small, quick defense.  But they protected them with Emmitt Smith and a clock-eating offense.  This, however, would require an almost complete overhaul of who the Chiefs are on offense.

The other way an offense can protect a small defense is with early leads.  Teams that fall behind early 21-3 or 28-7 generally retire their running games for the evening and lean almost exclusively on their passing attacks – a course that will play right into the hands of the Chief defense as currently constructed.

Going forward, Kansas City will have to embrace one of these philosophies.  Offensively, I believe they are still potent enough to make the playoffs, but unless they protect their defense more, they will be one and done when the second season arrives.

NFC is a Scrum

Last week, I took a look at the standings and, weighing that against what I’ve seen so far this season, speculated on eventual playoff seedings.  After the carnage of Week Ten, I am still relatively confident about my take on the AFC contenders.  But, as far as the other conference goes, there is no other way to put it.  The NFC is a scrum.

The previously undefeated San Francisco 49ers lost at home in overtime – but could just as easily have won if their backup kicker had made a 47-yard field goal.  The New Orleans Saints were pelted by the one-win Atlanta Falcons.  The Dallas Cowboys also lost at home to Minnesota, although the Vikings needed to withstand two Dallas red zone drives in the closing moments.  Green Bay beat Carolina in the snow at home, but by the narrowest of margins as Christian McCaffrey’s final second assault on the end zone ended up a scant few inches short.

The NFC contenders show a great disparity in records – from San Francisco’s 8-1 to four teams at 5-4 – but the play has been consistently pretty even.  This conference still feels very much up for grabs.

San Francisco Loses

I wish I had a nickel for every time the Monday Night booth mentioned the MVP award.  Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s candidacy for this post-season award almost seemed to overshadow the game itself, which was a beaut.  Myself, I have never invested much interest, either in the opinions of a bunch of sportswriters (whose analysis tends toward the shallow), or in the validity of the concept of a most valuable player in any team sport – much less football, where any level of success is a result of a team effort.  But, if I did expend energy worrying about football’s best player, I probably wouldn’t do it in Week Ten with nearly two months of games left to be played.

That being said, I think I would as soon watch Russell Wilson play as I would anyone playing the game today.  Whether he is the “MVP” or not, he is certainly a master at his craft, and the heartbeat of his team.  Russell Wilson can play for me anytime.

On this particular evening, the San Francisco pass defense gave as good as it got against Wilson and the Seahawks.  Russell entered the evening leading all NFL quarterbacks in touchdowns (22), touchdown percentage (7.5), interception percentage (0.3 – he had only thrown one), and passer rating at 118.2.  He also ranked third in passing yards (2505) and fifth in average yards per pass attempt (8.55).  On their end, the 49ers pass defense brought its share of statistical evidence, allowing the fewest passing attempts (226), fewest completions (127) and highest sack percentage (11.7%).  They were first in the league in total pass defense (by yards) and second by passer rating points (65.7).

The contest between the two showed how evenly matched they were.  The pass rush dropped Wilson 5 times, held him to fewer than 10 yards per completion, and intercepted him for just the second time this season (and that in the red zone in overtime).  Meanwhile, Wilson completed 70.6% pf his passes (24 for 34) and tossed just the eighth touchdown pass allowed by the 49ers.  His passer rating at the end of the day more-or-less split the difference, at 86.9

The difference in Seattle’s 27-24 overtime win (gamebook) (summary) was the dominance of its own running game and a surprising resurgence of its own underperforming defense.

Not as run-centric as they were last year, when they ran the ball 534 times while throwing just 427 times, the Seahawks are still very Neanderthalish in their offensive approach.  While ranking just eighth in rushing yards, Seattle came into the contest fourth in the NFL in running attempts with 273 – just slightly more than 30 per game.

The approach features Chris Carson as the hammerback.  Listed at just 5-11, but 222 pounds, Chris is that running back that defensive secondaries hate to deal with in the second half of games.  He entered Monday’s contest as the NFL’s fifth leading rusher with 764 yards, and second in carries – having taken 175 of Seattle’s rushing attempts.  The Hawks had handed off to Chris at least 20 times in 5 of its previous 6 games – and would do so again Monday night.

In spite of the fact that San Francisco jumped out to a 10-0 first-quarter lead – and in spite of the fact that the per-carry yield wasn’t great – Seattle kept giving Chris the ball.  His 6 first half carries netted just 19 yards.  But in the second half and overtime, Carson led a 26-carry, 114-yard ground game with 70 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.  On a night when their passing game wasn’t consistently effective, Seattle was still able to rely on its running game to sustain drives (8 of their 19 first downs came on running plays) and control the clock.

More important (and surprising) than the success of the Seattle running game was the breakthrough performance of its defense.

Last week, when I suggested that Seattle was going to fade from playoff contention in the second half, I cited its surprisingly poor defensive performance.  Of the first nine teams to line up against the Seahawks, eight of them scored at least 20 points, and five piled up at least 400 yards – with the Falcons gaining 510 in Week Eight.  Seattle’s defense came staggering into their showdown ranked twenty-fifth in total defense and twenty-second in scoring defense.  They had gotten to opposing quarterbacks just 15 times in 9 games and had allowed 12 rushing touchdowns – the second highest total in the league.

Regardless of how the contest between Wilson and the San Fran pass defense played out, this was the mismatch that was expected to decide the game.  The 49ers came into Monday night with the league’s second most productive running game (a remarkable 171.1 yards per game) with a league-leading 13 rushing touchdowns.

Coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton responded to the mismatch the only way they could, by committing eight and sometimes nine defenders to stopping the run.  At all costs, they were not going to let San Francisco shove the ball down their throats.  It would leave the pass defense somewhat vulnerable and playing more man coverage than usual, but the intent of the game plan was clear.  They were putting the game on the shoulders of 49er quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.  If San Francisco was going to win this game, Jimmy would have to throw them to victory.

Halfway through his first full season at the 49ers helm, Jimmy Garopollo is very much an unknown quantity.  His record as a starter (16-2 coming into the contest) was spectacular, but Jimmy was much more a cog in the machine than the featured weapon.  The 49ers this year are among the most Neanderthal of teams.  Eight games into the season, Jimmy had thrown the ball just 226 times, while he had handed off 303 times.  With a dominant running game, and football’s top defense, Jimmy’s job has been more to not lose games.  The league had not yet seen how he would perform if the game rested on him.

So it was on Monday night that Seattle mostly muffled the San Francisco running game.  Leading rusher Matt Breida finished with just 18 yards on 10 carries, and the team finished with just 87 yards on 27 carries (3.2 per).  Under the microscope for the first time this season, Jimmy’s numbers were disappointing – he finished 24 for 46 for just 248 yards, throwing 1 touchdown pass, but also tossing one interception.  His 66.2 rating (which was 41.8 in the second half) was less than impressive, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  Garoppolo was operating without his only two reliable targets (George Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders).  He also faced a much more productive Seattle pass rush than anticipated.

Jimmy went down 5 times on the evening (only the third time this season that Seattle has managed more than two sacks in any game).  In the middle of this mayhem was defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

For five seasons, Clowney was an impact defender in Houston.  While he had played well since becoming a Seahawk in the offseason, Jadeveon hadn’t yet shown his new team the elite playmaker he had been through his earlier career.  That changed on Monday night, as Clowney threw around San Francisco offensive linemen like they were so many rag dolls.  He finished with just one of the five sacks, but pressured Garoppolo ten times, hurrying him 5 times and knocking him down on 4 other occasions.

He also recovered a fumble and scored Seattle’s first points of the night.  When Clowney is playing at this level, the Seahawk defense suddenly looks a whole lot better.

It should also be pointed out that Garoppolo had six passes dropped, a couple of them on those critical overtime drives.

The truth about Jimmy is that his numbers could have easily been much better.  They also could have been much worse.  Two of his first four passes in that critical game-tying drive in the waning moments of the fourth quarter were thrown directly into the hands of defenders K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner. Both easy interceptions were dropped.

My own read on Garoppolo is that I don’t think he’s “special.” He’s not a guy who can raise the level of the team he’s on.  But he did more good things than bad last week.  He’s a guy who will always give the 49ers a chance to win.

Answering Questions in Dallas

On October 13 of this year, the Minnesota Vikings season suddenly became a whole lot more interesting.  That was the date of their Week Six contest against Philadelphia.

To that point, the Vikings were at 3-2, but the wins were against the Falcons, Raiders and Giants – teams that were struggling to put things together.  Their losses were against the only two contending teams they had played so far – Green Bay and Chicago.  The defense – always Mike Zimmer’s top concern – was performing quite well (Minnesota had allowed only 73 points to that point), but the offense was – as usual – a concern.  Five weeks into the season, they were a very good running team.  They averaged 166.4 rushing yards per game, and 5.4 yards per attempt.

Ah, but the passing game.

With fine performances against the lesser teams, quarterback Kirk Cousins carried an even 100.0 passer rating into the contest.  But, as had been his disturbing pattern, he had underperformed in the bigger games.  He was only 14 for 32 with 2 interceptions against the Packers.  He threw for just 233 yards against the Bears with no touchdowns and 6 sacks.  The whispers that have dogged Cousins’ career were increasing in volume and frequency.  Not a guy who can win the big game.  Doesn’t show up when the lights are brightest.

Two winters ago, the Minnesota Vikings were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They were in Philadelphia playing in the NFC Championship Game against the Eagles when Nick Foles suddenly went off.  The rest, is history.

In Week Six, it was the Eagles standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They were in Minnesota when everything clicked for Kirk Cousins.  The Vikings’ supposed franchise quarterback stopped second guessing himself, and just threw the football.  The difference was immediately noticeable.

By halftime, he had thrown for 209 yards and two long touchdown passes to formerly disgruntled wide receiver Stefon Diggs.  Kirk would finish that game 22 for 29 for 333 yards and 4 touchdowns.  He would be charged with one interception on a pass that bounced off of Diggs’ hands.

But his 138.4 passer rating was just the start.  Kirk never looked back, showing the same form in wins over Detroit and Washington, and also threw well in a loss to Kansas City.  In the four games preceding the Sunday night showdown in Dallas, Cousins had completed 88 of 127 throws (69.3%) for 1175 yards with an 11-1 touchdown to interception ratio.  His four-week passer rating of 124.0 brought his season number to 112.0 – third best in the NFL.

Now, Kirk would be faced with that big, primetime, everyone-watching game against the Cowboys in Dallas.  Would he be able to respond?

The first half of the game belonged to the quarterbacks.  Cousins didn’t disappoint, as he completed 16 of 21 (76.2%) for 170 yards and 2 touchdowns without an interception.  His opponent, Dallas’ Dak Prescott more or less matched him, hitting 12 of 21 for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns of his own – also without interception.  Cousins went into the locker room with a 17-14 lead and a 131.1 rating to Prescott’s 118.9.

The second half belonged to the Minnesota linemen – offensive and defensive.  In a way, the second half of Minnesota-Dallas looked an awful lot like the second half of Seattle-San Francisco.  The Vikings polished away their 28-24 victory (gamebook) (summary) by running the ball and stopping the run.

After his excellent first half, Cousins threw the ball just 11 times.  Meanwhile the NFL’s leading rusher – the Vikings Dalvin Cook (894 yards) had been a bit under-utilized in the first half, finishing with 27 yards on 9 carries.  He battered the Cowboys with 17 second-half carries for 70 yards and a touchdown.  The game’s signature drive was a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that the Vikings closed the third quarter with.  Eleven of the 13 plays were runs, including four straight once the Vikings achieved a first-and-goal from the six.  The drive consumed 6:59 of the clock, and left Cowboys trailing 28-21.

In all, Minnesota called 24 running plays in the second half alone, racking up 110 yards (4.6 per). The Vikings controlled the ball for 18:10 of the second half.

On the other side of the ball, Minnesota’s defense inhaled the Dallas running game.  Ezekiel Elliott (on his way to a 47 yard rushing game) carried only 8 times after intermission, gaining just 10 yards.  His longest run of the day was just 6 yards.  The Cowboys as a team finished the second half with just 6 yards rushing on 9 carries, and just 50 yards for the game.  Dallas finished the game with no rushing first downs – something fairly unheard of.

Prescott responded by throwing 25 times in the second half, with mixed results – 16 receptions for 208 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception.  Cowboy receivers Amari Cooper (11 catches for 147 yards) and Randall Cobb (6 catches for 106 yards) had big games, and Prescott ended up with 397 yards passing.

But once again, the Cowboys loss coincided with their inability to establish a running game.

And the Usurpers Bowl

The LA Rams journeyed to Pittsburgh in a game between two teams that are just on the outside of the playoffs but had – at the start of the week – and inside track on replacing two of the teams currently holding playoff positions.  Again, defense carried the day as the emotional Steelers throttled LA’s tenth-ranked offense by a 17-12 score (gamebook) (summary).

LA finished the first half 0-for-8 on third down, and quarterback Jared Goff finished the half with a 65.9 rating.  He was sacked 3 times in the half, and was under constant pressure throughout.  The high-powered Rams had just one play of 20 yards in that half.

The Steelers sewed things up with 3 second half turnovers, in a game that saw no offensive touchdowns in the half.

Most of the playoff optimism in Pittsburgh stemmed from the fact that between this game against the Rams and their season ending contest in Baltimore, Pittsburgh plays one of football’s softest schedules.  In that regard, Thursday’s loss in Cleveland has damaged them more than the victory over Los Angeles helped them.  Certainly, should Pittsburgh finish out of the playoffs, Thursday’s loss in Cleveland will linger in the memory.

Patriots No Match for Running Ravens

In all honesty, it was a lot like trying to tackle a feral cat.

There is about a minute and a half left in the third quarter.  Baltimore is leading New England 24-20, and is driving, with a first-and-ten on the Patriot 16.  Tight End Mark Andrews and running back Gus Edwards both ran flat routes to the offensive right side, and quarterback Lamar Jackson rolled to that side, probably with the intent to lob a short pass in that direction.

But Patriot defensive tackle John Simon came free on the blitz and met Jackson about ten yards behind the line – dropping him for a big loss and bringing up second and long.  At least, it looked like that would happen.

But, with Simon one yard away from his prey, Jackson came to an immediate dead stop and in the blink of an eye pivoted 90 degrees to his left and started to shoot up the middle.  He immediately realized that this was a bad idea, as end Lawrence Guy stood just in front of him.

Before the mind could quite register that Lamar was headed up the middle, he turned on his right foot in the act of running, and was suddenly running to his left again, away from both Guy and Simon, only to look up and find linebacker Kyle Van Noy not three yards away from him, ready to gather him in.  Or so he thought.

Jackson, still seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, was completely boxed in by this trio of Patriots that converged on him quickly.  Just not quick enough.  Before Van Noy and Guy could meet at the quarterback, Lamar was gone – darting through the small gap between them.  And suddenly a sure 10-yard loss had become an 11-yard gain – with Baltimore setting up with a first-and-goal on the five.

Two plays later, Lamar would loop a short scoring pass to Nick Boyle for the back-breaking touchdown in Baltimore’s eventual 37-20 conquest of the previously undefeated Patriots.

Jackson runs with remarkable instinct.  He feels the nearness of defenders, and his feet and body adjust and course correct faster than Lamar’s brain could possibly comprehend the situation.

Later Jackson set up Baltimore’s last touchdown with a nine-yard run through a hole that just didn’t really exist.  Like a page of newsprint blown by a fierce breeze, New England spent a frustrating Sunday evening just trying to get a grip on the problem that is Lamar Jackson.

There is no question that Jackson is a gifted, gifted athlete.  The question of whether he is an NFL quarterback still has no easy answer.  With Sunday’s victory, Lamar is now 12-3 lifetime as a starter, and his pelts now include the defending champions in New England.  So to that extent, you would have to say that yes, Mr. Jackson is indeed an NFL quarterback.  And, if you don’t accept throwing the football as a primary function of a quarterback, then Lamar definitely fits the job description.

However, if you believe that an NFL offense needs more than one dimension, then Jackson remains a work in significant progress.  His final numbers from Sunday evening were terrific.  He completed 73.9% of his passes against the vaunted New England defense (17-23) with a touchdown pass, no interceptions, and a 107.7 passer rating.  And, yes, the Patriots did enter the game allowing just 52.4% of the passes thrown against them to be completed. Prior to Sunday, they had allowed just two touchdown passes, while intercepting 19 passes and holding opposing throwers to a 40.6 rating.  In all of those numbers, they led the league – and by a substantial margin.  So the statistics support Lamar’s arm.

Watching the game, however, left you with a distinctly different impression.

Jackson’s longest pass play of the afternoon was a 26-yarder to wide receiver Marquise Brown.  From the point where Lamar released the ball to the point where Brown gathered it in, the football traveled maybe three inches as this was one of those flip passes in the backfield that Kansas City has popularized.  Of his 23 passes, 8 were thrown within a yard of the line of scrimmage (he was 8-8 on those passes) and 14 of the 23 didn’t travel more than 5 yards from scrimmage.

For the evening, Jackson threw only 3 passes more than 10 yards from scrimmage – completing just one.  His 16 completions for the evening were in the air a total of 51 yards – fewer yards than he contributed with his legs (61) and fewer yards than Mark Ingram earned on his longest run of the day – a 53-yarder.

Now, you can spin this a lot of ways if you want, but the in front of your eyes fact of the matter is that Baltimore’s dominant running attack and solid defense allowed the Ravens to mostly hide the passing aspect of their quarterback play.  Just watching Lamar throw, the ball doesn’t look like it fits in his hand quite right.  He runs like a gazelle, but throwing the ball almost looks like he’s committing an unnatural act.

I’m afraid that I still believe that if Baltimore ever needed to depend of Jackson’s arm to win a game for them, they will be in trouble.  Even in this game against New England, you could tell that Lamar still had the element of surprise every time he threw.  Even on third down, New England was playing run first.

The question then becomes, will Baltimore, in fact, ever need Lamar to pass them to victory?  Of the Ravens’ 372 offensive total yards, Jackson directly accounted (rush yards and pass yards) for just 224 – relatively low for a quarterback.  Runners other than Jackson accounted for 149 of Baltimore’s 210 rushing yards (71%).  None of this is meant to diminish Lamar’s impact on the game.  He is certainly the fear element on the offense – none of their running backs or receivers strike fear into the hearts of defenders.

This is just to establish that the Ravens are more than just Lamar Jackson.  Their offensive line is arguably football’s best, and could probably sustain a dominant running attack whoever the quarterback might be.  Lamar is the extra gear on top of a very dangerous offensive machine.  On game day, he looks like a one man offense – and the announcers talk about him as though he were a one man offense.

Moreover, this Baltimore attack would lose its lynchpin if something were to happen to Jackson.  But don’t misunderstand.  This is a dangerous offense, no matter who is standing under center.  In the purity of its Neanderthal principles, the Baltimore Ravens have reduced the video-game aspect of today’s NFL into a primordial expression of basic manhood.  They come to punch you in the mouth.  Last Sunday evening, it was more than the defending world champions could recover from.

Last week, I questioned the Patriot defense, essentially asking whether their record-setting numbers were legitimate or a function of the softness of their schedule.  Looking back at the game they played against Cleveland the week before, I pointed out some areas of vulnerability that I suspected future opponents might exploit.  In their victory last Sunday, Baltimore exploited almost every one of them.

Frankly, I’m expecting to see a re-match here later on in the playoffs.  Having seen them, now, up close it will be interesting to see what adjustments New England makes.

Chargers Trying to Creep Back into Relevance

It was a game like so many others in recent Charger history.  Trailing Tennessee 23-20 in their Week Seven matchup, Los Angeles’ defense stopped the Titans on fourth-and-one at about midfield, giving Philip Rivers and the LA offense one more shot at a victory (or at worst, a game-tying field goal that would send the contest to overtime).  They had no timeouts left, but did have 2:35 left on the clock.

Two minutes and sixteen seconds of football time later, running back Melvin Gordon fumbled at the one yard line, and the Chargers had another frustrating loss to absorb.

The Chargers had been a playoff team last year, but at 2-5 a return trip in 2019 seemed remote.

But, in the week-to-week NFL, things can change quickly.

After surviving a trip to Chicago – thanks to a missed last-second field goal – the Chargers came back home to face one of the NFC’s most feared teams, the 7-1 Green Bay Packers.  It was not a contest Los Angeles was expected to win.

Late last Sunday afternoon, Rivers took a knee and watched the clock expire on a 26-11 Los Angeles victory (gamebook) (summary) that was both unexpected and gratifying.

Rivers – the long-time Charger quarterback – led an efficient passing attack with 294 yards on 21 of 28 passing, but the deciding factors in this one were the reborn running game and a remarkable performance from the defense.

For two games in 2019, the Chargers showed the kind of offensive balance that had brought them a playoff berth last year.  After they ran for 125 yards in the opener against Indianapolis, they tacked on 137 more in Week Two against the Lions.

But, thereafter, the running game fell into disarray.  For the next six weeks, they would fail to reach 80 yards rushing – registering fewer than 40 rushing yards in each of the last four games.  In their Week Eight win in Chicago, they had run the ball only 12 times for 36 yards.

With the running game now dropping to twenty-eighth in the league (69.5 yards per game), and their 3.5 yards per carry also fading to twenty-eighth in the league, the Chargers dismissed offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and gave the play calling duties to Shane Steichen.  One of his mandates was to revive the running game.

Mission accomplished.

By halftime last Sunday, the Chargers had more yards (49) than in any of their four previous games.  But that was only the warm-up.  Throughout the second half, Rivers threw the ball only 6 times.  The rest was a bludgeoning running game that clicked off 27 running plays for 110 yards, and 2 touchdowns.  That was just the second half.  LA finished the game with 159 rushing yards on 38 carries.

The exclamation point came with 10:39 left in the game and LA ahead 19-3.  Facing fourth-and-goal on the Packer 1, Michael Badgley booted an apparent 19-yard field goal that seemed to seal the game at 22-3.  But not so fast.  An offside penalty against Green Bay’s Tony Brown was – surprisingly – accepted by LA coach Anthony Lynn.  With the ball now at the half-yard line, Lynn took the points off the board and emphatically waived his offense back on the field.

Faced with that same yard (or, at least, half-yard) that he had been unable to negotiate against Tennessee, Gordon plowed through limited Packer resistance to produce the game-clinching score.

The victory owed as much to a tenacious defense that chased Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers all over his backfield.  Green Bay ran only 18 plays for 50 first-half yards.  They ended the day with only 184 yards – with Rodgers managing just 161 passing.  Factoring in the sacks, Green Bay averaged more yards per running play (4.1) than they did per pass play (3.7).

It kinda makes you think that the Packers might have been a little more interested in running the ball.  In recent weeks running back Aaron Jones has transformed into something of a superstar.  He entered the game with 11 touchdowns on the season already (8 rushing and 3 receiving).  The previous week he had landed on the Kansas City Chiefs to the tune of 226 scrimmage yards.

Last Sunday, Jones got 9 touches.  He ran the ball only 3 times in the second half.  Adding in a Rodgers’ scramble, Green Bay had 4 second half running plays (even though they trailed only 9-0 at the half).  They finished the game with 45 rushing yards on 11 carries.  Perhaps they could learn a little something from the reborn running team they faced last Sunday.

It’s easy to make too much of this one game.  Clearly, with their season on the line, the Chargers played with much greater urgency than Green Bay – who seemed mostly out of sorts.  Desperation is a great advantage, but one Los Angeles won’t always have.  Tonight, for example, in Oakland they will face a 4-4 Raider team that is just as desperate to salvage its season.

While their playoff odds are still pretty long, this game did remind you how talented the Chargers are – and what a handful they can be when they run a balanced offense.

Not Quite Elementary My Dear Watson

Fresh off of his heroic game-winning touchdown pass against the Raiders – after having been kicked in the eye – Deshaun Watson and the 5-3 Houston Texans invaded London to play their division rivals from Jacksonville – the 4-4 Jaguars.

The Texans and Jag-u-ars accommodated their English cousins with a smashing show of American footballery – better, to be sure, on the part of the Texans – who earned the 26-3 victory (gamebook) (summary).

While the spotlight rested firmly on Watson, Deshaun was quite outshone by his running game.  As Watson threw for just 201 yards, that running game, spearheaded by Carlos Hyde, rolled through the beleaguered Jag-u-ars to the tune of 216 yards and 6.4 yards per carry.  A jolly good show.

The game itself was rather crisply played.  The two teams combined for just 6 punts and 11 penalties – reasonable totals, both.  And no turnovers.

Well, for the first 53 and a half minutes.

And then the floodgates opened as the two teams combined to spit up the football 5 times over the last 19 plays of the contest.  Most of those turnovers came courtesy of Jacksonville’s rookie quarterback, Gardner Minshew II.  Gardner – a mostly unheralded sixth-round pick out of Washington State – had inherited the starting position when Nick Foles was hurt in Week One.  With the surprise opportunity, Minshew fashioned a 4-3 record and a 98.8 passer rating coming into the contest.  Before his encounter with the Texans, Gardner had tossed just two interceptions.  In the fourth quarter alone, Minshew tossed two and fumbled the ball over twice.

Bit of a sticky wicket, what?

Unfortunately, this rather messy start was his last before the expected return of Mr Foles, and the buzz is that Nicky will get the ball on the other side of Jacksonville’s bye this week.  Timing, as they say, is everything.

On Football In England

There has been some chat recently about giving a European city – possibly London – a permanent place in American football.  The Los Angeles Chargers have already denied rumors that they would be moving across the pond.  The thought of a regular NFL franchise in Europe (the London Corgis anyone?) does have some intriguing aspects.  It would mean more regular early Sunday morning football games (which may or may not be a good idea) and, perhaps, the eventual melding of cultures (steak and kidney pie sold at Yankee concession stands?), it would also present its own set of issues.

In the first place, the season would almost have to extend an extra week to 18 weeks, with each team getting two byes.  Whoever this European team would be, they would be making 8 trips across the Atlantic every year.  This could, perhaps, be fewer, if the schedule makers tried to group their road and home games and the team decided not to travel back if their next game were also on American soil.

Even so, this team would be back and forth frequently, and would face a competitive disadvantage if they were only allotted one bye.  Should they ever host a playoff game, the travelling team might feel unusually pressed to put together their best game.

It would also be interesting to see what division they would be placed in – it would have to be one of the Eastern Divisions.

Anyway, it is a topic that seems to be under discussion.  As always, it is anyone’s guess as to how that will turn out.

First Thoughts on the 2019 Playoff Picture

With everybody having played at least eight games, now – and some having played nine – the 2019 playoff picture is starting to come into focus.  By this point of the season, most of the teams that are in playoff position traditionally will hold onto those spots.

With eight weeks of games to play, though, there will be some shifting of positions, and usually a couple of teams that will drop out of contention.  This year, I have my eye on two teams – one AFC and one NFC that are not currently in playoff position that I rather suspect will be there by the time December rolls around.

But first, let’s take a look at how things are currently set-up.

AFC East

The defending NFL Champions got their hats handed to them on Sunday night, but they still currently hold the top seed in the AFC by virtue of their 8-1 record.  The loss does narrow the gap between them and the two 6-2 teams that are chasing them.  One of those teams – the Buffalo Bills – are in New England’s same division.  Beyond the perception that New England is a significantly better team, still, than Buffalo, the Bills schedule will also hinder them from chasing the Patriots down from behind.

Beginning with Week 13, Buffalo has road games coming up in Dallas, Pittsburgh and New England – as well as a home game against the scary Baltimore Ravens.  New England has a difficult closing schedule, too.  Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston and Kansas City all await them after their bye – but at least the Patriots will get to play Dallas and Kansas City at home.  The likelihood of Buffalo pulling out the division title is, I think, slim.  They are, however, currently sitting in the top wild card spot.

AFC North

At 6-2, Baltimore is currently the only over .500 team in this division, and unlikely to be caught.  If that does happen, though, it will be because the Ravens had struggled through the hardest remaining stretch of their schedule.  Beginning in Week 11, they play Houston at home, the Rams in LA, San Francisco at home, and in Buffalo.  There may yet be a solution for this revolutionary Baltimore offense, but at the moment, their playoff credentials appear solid.

AFC South

This is the AFC’s tightest division at the moment, with a half game separating the 6-3 Houston Texans (who currently hold the number 3 seed) and the 5-3 Indianapolis Colts (who currently hold the second wildcard spot).  With Houston’s remaining schedule slightly easier than Indy’s, the Texans seem likely to hold on.

Both teams have challenging closing schedules, but most of Houston’s tough games are at home (where they will play Indianapolis, New England and Tennessee).  Their most challenging road games for the rest of the season take them into Baltimore to play the Ravens in Week 11, and into Tennessee in Week 15.

The Colts, on the other hand, will finish with four of their last six on the road – all of them difficult games (Houston, Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Jacksonville).  Those four road games will be especially critical for Indianapolis, because right now I don’t think 9-7 gets you into the playoffs.  In fact, at the moment, I have the Colts marked as the AFC team that will cough up its playoff position and watch the postseason from home.

AFC West

The Raiders have made a little run of late to creep back to .500, but they are still 1.5 games behind Kansas City, who seem to have survived the loss of their superstar quarterback without losing their lead in the division.  The Chiefs do have some tough road games left – in Tennessee, in Los Angeles against the Chargers, and in New England.  But even if they lose all of those games, it is hard to imagine them being overtaken by Oakland – or anyone else in that division.

NFC West

The NFC West is the home of the only undefeated team left in football – the 8-0 San Francisco 49ers.  They are, of course, currently the top seed in the NFC.  Talk of an undefeated season here is fairly premature, as San Fran’s closing schedule is borderline brutal.  On the plus side, though, they only have three more road games this season – games that will take them into Baltimore, New Orleans and Seattle.  A couple of the home games should be pretty difficult, too, as the Seahawks, Packers and Rams will all come to the city by the bay.

If this 49er team isn’t the real deal, they will be exposed rather quickly, now.  However, since they have answered every challenge presented them so far, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and call them the best team in this division.

Chasing them for the moment are the 7-2 Seahawks and the 5-3 Rams.  Seattle currently holds the top wild card spot, with the Rams just out of the playoffs – if they would start today.  At 7-2, Seattle’s position certainly looks solid – and their fanbase might have every reason to expect to see this team in the playoffs.  But Seattle has two major storm clouds hanging over them.  The first is a truly brutal closing schedule.  The second is a terrible defense.

There is no other way to say this, but Seattle has managed to fight its way to a 7-2 record in spite of one of football’s worst defenses.  With their 40-34 overtime win on Sunday, Seattle has now allowed at least 20 points in 8 of their 9 games, and 30 or more three times.  They have surrendered over 400 yards five times, including their 27-20 Week Eight win over Atlanta when they allowed 510 yards.  They rank twenty-second in the league in scoring defense, and twenty-fifth in yardage allowed.

They are twenty-eighth against the pass – in no small part because they have managed just 15 quarterback sacks this season.  They are twenty-ninth in sack rate, dropping the opposing passer on only 4.2% of his drop-backs.  Against the run, they are allowing 4.7 yards per rushing attempt, and have allowed 12 rushing touchdowns this season – the NFL’s second highest total.  Only Carolina – allowing 14 – has served up more.

Russell Wilson and company run a mostly magical offense, but this tepid defense will face this closing schedule beginning this Monday night (team record in parenthesis): in San Francisco (8-0), in Philadelphia (5-4), home vs Minnesota (6-3), at the Rams (5-3), at Carolina (5-3), home against Arizona (3-5-1) and home against San Fran (8-0).  Unless this defense gets much better before Monday night, this is the NFC team that I foresee giving up its spot in the dance.

NFC South

Lurking just off of San Francisco’s port bow are the New Orleans Saints – now 7-1 and holders of the conference’s second seed.  New Orleans’ future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees went to the sidelines injured in the second game of the season.  The Saints won all five games that he missed – three of them on the road (in Seattle, Jacksonville, and Chicago), two of them when the offense scored fewer than 14 points (12-10 over Dallas and 13-6 over Jacksonville) and the other three when the defense allowed more than 21 points (33-27 over Seattle, 31-24 over Tampa Bay, and 36-25 over Chicago).

And now Brees is back.  That is more than just a little bit scary.  This team does everything well – throw the ball, run the ball, stop the run, sack the passer – and is now in a mindset of doing whatever it needs to to win.

Their remaining schedule isn’t all that fierce, and the tougher games remaining will be mostly played at home (Carolina, San Francisco and Indianapolis).  They close the season on the road in Tennessee and in Carolina.  Compared to some of the other schedules, this one doesn’t sound so bad.

Good chance here for the Saints not only to win their division, but slip in front of the 49ers for the conference’s top seed.  That Week 14 game against the 49ers is already rife with playoff importance.

Carolina (5-3) is the only other winning team in that division.  The Panthers have had some bad moments, but have overall looked legitimate.  They do play the Saints twice, so catching New Orleans is possible, but the Panthers also have a few hard road games ahead.  Besides playing in New Orleans, they will also journey into Green Bay and Indianapolis.  If they win their home games, however, and pick up at least the road win in Atlanta, the Panthers could reasonably expect a 10-6 finish, which could make them one of the contenders for the playoff berth that the Seahawks will vacate.

NFC North

This one will come down to the wire between the 7-2 Green Bay Packers and the 6-3 Minnesota Vikings.  This one will come down to tie-breakers, with (my prediction) the Packers winning because of a better record in common games.  The Packers currently hold the third seed.  The Vikings currently sit as the number two wild card team, likely to finish as the number one wild card.

NFC East

This division has suddenly gotten tighter as the Eagles have started to piece their game together.  The Dallas Cowboys (5-3) hold a half game lead over the 5-4 Philadelphia team.

The Cowboys’ remaining schedule has a few top teams on it.  They will play Minnesota and the Rams at home.  The nastiest road game they have left is in New England in Week 12.  They also play in Philly in Week 16.

All of Philadelphia’s toughest remaining games will come at home.  Their remaining road schedule takes them into Miami, into Washington, and into New York to play the Giants.  The home schedule, on the other hand, is plenty daunting.  Their remaining home opponents include New England, Seattle and Dallas.  If they lose two of these three – and I rather think they will – they will probably see the division crown end up in Dallas – and may find themselves out of the playoffs entirely.  Even at 10-6, Philadelphia could well join Carolina as 10-6 teams watching the playoffs on TV.

Who’s Getting In?

The NFC has no shortage of quality teams waiting to claim Seattle’s spot.  Of the trio of teams with a real good chance of finishing 10-6, the Rams will probably get the nod.  Playing in the very competitive NFC West, their “strength of victory” number could well be the deciding factor.

The AFC usurper will be one of the better stories of the season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers began the season getting run off the field in New England.  In their Week Two loss against Seattle, they lost their starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, for the season.  Turning to backup Mason Rudolph, they lost two of the next three to begin the season 1-4, dropping off of everyone’s radar.

Since then, Mike Tomlin’s crew has won three in a row.  They haven’t all been pretty, but the victories do include a road win at the Chargers and Sunday’s 26-24 squeaker over Indianapolis on a missed field goal at the end of the game.

The Steelers and Rudolph still don’t scare anybody.  But take a glance at the rest of their schedule.  This Sunday they get the Rams at home (the usurper’s bowl?).  They end the season against Baltimore in Baltimore.  In between, this is how it reads: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Arizona, Buffalo (at home), and the New York Jets.  Even if they lose to the Rams and the Ravens, if Pittsburgh takes care of business against the weak sister teams in between, they will be going back to the playoffs – however short that stay might be.

So, here is how I call the final seedings:

NFC: Saints (1) 49ers (2) Packers (3) Cowboys (4) Vikings (5) and Rams (6).

AFC: Patriots (1), Ravens (2), Chiefs (3), Texans (4), Steelers (5) and Bills (6).

There are still a lot of games to be played, but this is how it looks to me at the half-way point.

How Good, Really, is the Patriot Defense?

The defensive numbers through the first seven weeks were fairly historic.  The offense claims to be a work in progress – although if you were to guess which team leads the NFL in points scored, the answer isn’t Kansas City.  Last Sunday, as they took the field to face the Cleveland Browns, The New England Patriots – at the time 7-0 – had allowed all of 48 points.  On the season.  While the Patriots were playing the Browns, across the continent the Carolina Panthers were in the process of serving up 51 points in that single afternoon.

On the way to their 48 points allowed, New England had allowed opposing passers to complete just 50.8% of their passes, gaining just 5.00 yards per pass attempt.  Both of those figures were the stingiest in the league.  But that is just the start.  Of the first 242 passes thrown against them, there had been only one touchdown pass.


NY Giant quarterback Daniel Jones had found Golden Tate for a 64-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter of their 35-14 Week Six loss to New England.  I’m not sure if any team had ever – in the modern era – gone five games without allowing a touchdown pass.  Meanwhile, if opposing quarterbacks hadn’t had much luck throwing touchdown passes, they had a much easier time with interceptions.  Eighteen of them – a 7.4% rate.  Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield stepped onto the field against a defense that allowed opposing passers a mind-numbing 35.6 passer rate.  For context, the league average was 91.4.  New England quarterback Tom Brady brought a 94.8 rating into the contest – a glaring 59.2-point margin over the Patriots’ opposing passers.

Ah, yes.  Those opposing passers.  Who were they again?

Well, in Week One they did get the better of Pittsburgh veteran Ben Roethlisberger (a 65.6 rating on 47 passes) – albeit Ben was more than a little betrayed by receiver Donte Moncrief who dropped 3 passes.

But after the Pittsburgh game, the schedule and the opponents were decidedly soft.  They next played the still-winless Miami team, facing both Ryan Fitzpatrick (23.8 rating) and Josh Rosen (33.8).  After them came the Jets (currently 1-6).  New York didn’t have their starting quarterback available for this game, so the Pats got rookie Luke Falk making his first career start.  He managed a 47.2 rating in a 30-14 loss.

Up next was the only winning team New England has played all season – the currently 5-2 Buffalo Bills.  Second-year starter Josh Allen was only 13-for-28 for 153 yards and 3 interceptions in the 16-10 Patriot win.  It should be noted that Buffalo’s strong suit has been more its defense than its offense.

After Buffalo came now 1-7 Washington and the immortal Colt McCoy (Colt is 7-21 for his 5-year career as a starter with a 78.4 career rating).  He scored a 61.0 rating as he threw for just 122 yards with an interception in a 33-7 loss.

Their next opponent – the New York Giants – are now all of 2-6, making them one of the more significant challenges New England has faced in the early going.  They would also be starting a rookie QB – the aforementioned Mr. Jones who had taken the reigns from Eli Manning.  This would be Daniel’s fourth career start.  He did throw the touchdown pass.  He also chucked 3 interceptions and finished with a 35.2 rating in the loss.

New England warmed up for Cleveland with a Monday nighter against the other New York team.  This time the Jets did have their number one ready to go.  Sam Darnold – another second-year starter – was making his sixteenth career start, and the Patriots took advantage of him, too.  Sam, in fact, made New England look like a defense of Hall-of-Famers.  In the 33-0 loss, Sam completed 11 of 32 for just 86 yards and 4 interceptions – an agonizing 3.6 rating.

There are a lot of quarterbacks in the MVP conversation this year.  The Patriots haven’t played any of those guys.  In fact, to this point of the season, the opposition had been so squishy soft – so much youth, inexperience, and lack of supporting cast – that it’s easy to wonder how much of this record-setting pace is legit, and how much is the softness of the opposition.  In a sense, the Patriots have been like the major college programs that have lined up a lot of cupcakes to make themselves look better than they are.

That, of course, will be changing.  Coming up for NE is Baltimore, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston and Kansas City – presumably with Patrick Mahomes back.  So these questions will soon be answered.  But there are some hints in the game they just played against Cleveland.

Baker Mayfield was a college legend as a three-year starter in Oklahoma, finishing up with the 2017 Heisman Award and going to Cleveland as the first overall draft pick and as the future of the franchise in 2018.

By Game Four, Baker was the starter and was more than mildly impressive in his rookie season.  He produced three 300-yard passing games, threw three or more touchdown passes 4 times, and finished five of his starts with a passer rating of over 100.  In back-to-back games in Weeks Eight & Nine last year (against Atlanta and Cincinnati) Baker completed 36 of 46 passes (78.3%) for 474 yards, throwing 7 touchdowns without an interception – a two-game rating of 149.2.

Baker finished his rookie season with a 93.7 rating and led the formerly moribund Browns to a 6-7 record in his starts.

Against this backdrop, the expectations for 2019 were fairly high in Cleveland.  They went into New England last Sunday just 2-4 on the season, taking a step backward in almost all phases.  Defensively, they ranked twenty-third overall, and twenty-second in scoring defense.  This included ranking thirtieth against the run and thirty-first in average yards per rush against at 5.0.

As for Mayfield, his second look at the NFL has been much more difficult than his first.  Through his first six games, Baker had fallen to thirtieth in passer rating (66.0), thirty-first in completion percentage (56.6%) and last of all qualifying passers in interception rate, as 11 of his first 198 passes this season had been intercepted (5.6%).

In many ways, Baker was just another struggling second-year starter to face the Patriots – and the final numbers from the game suggested much the same.  The Patriots rolled to the victory, 27-13 (gamebook) (summary), while holding Baker to a 79.2 rating.  I don’t know that that tells the entire story, however.

While not earth-shattering, Baker’s 79.2 rating was the highest against New England by a considerable margin this season, and Mayfield – who entered the game next to last in completion percentage – completed 64.5% (20 of 31) of his passes against the team allowing barely more than 50% of the passes thrown against them to be complete.

As befits their season, Cleveland turned the ball over on three consecutive first-quarter snaps.  The first – running back Nick Chubb’s first fumble of the game – was returned for a touchdown by the defense.  The second – Nick Chubb’s second fumble of the game – denied the Browns a scoring opportunity.  The third – a bizarre interception of a shovel pass – gave the Patriot offense a short field and set up another New England touchdown.  A Halloween-esque first quarter had left the Browns in a 17-0 hole.

It was too deep a deficit for Cleveland to overcome, but from that point of the game on they outscored New England 13-10.  There were a few pieces of the Brown game plan that worked better than one might have thought – pieces that other teams (like the Ravens) might incorporate into future game plans against the Patriots.

First of all, Cleveland ran the ball against New England.  And they didn’t stop running even after they fell behind early.  Ten first-half rushing plays were followed by 12 second-half rushes.  The Browns finished with 159 rushing yards.

The Patriots came into the game ranked second against the run (allowing 74.7 yards per game), but it was a fairly hollow honor.  With big early leads, New England had defended just 126 running plays – the fewest in the league.  The few previous times the Pats had needed to defend the run for the full four quarters, they showed some vulnerability there.  Buffalo ran for 135 against them in Week Four, and Washington added 145 more the next week.

I am unconvinced that New England defends the run as well as their defensive resume suggests, and that team (like Baltimore) that will run with great conviction will give them more than a little problem.

The second offensive goal against the Patriots is one that Cleveland managed only sporadically.  After watching the Patriot defense for 8 weeks, I am convinced that 75% of their effectiveness is the man coverage skills of Stephon Gilmore and a high-blitzing pass rush.  (The Patriots entered the game with 26 sacks on the season – ranking second – and a sack percentage of 9.7% – third best in the NFL.)

Baker saw blitzes on 15 of his 37 drop-backs (just slightly over 40%).  On most other occasions, New England showed blitz, but then dropped out.

The pressure packages had their successes, as Mayfield went down 5 times, was hurried on 3 other occasions, and forced to scramble once.  But when the line could give Baker time, he showed that the New England secondary wasn’t nearly as impenetrable as advertised.

This happened on Mayfield’s touchdown pass.  As this was only the second touchdown pass allowed by the Patriots all season, you might think it was a remarkable design.  As it turns out, the most unusual thing about it was that the quarterback wasn’t running for his life.

Tight end Demetrius Harris ran a deep corner route from the New England 21 with linebacker Don’t’a Hightower in coverage.  But he was not the only receiver open.  The two underneath crossing routes were also open – Jarvis Landry running away from Gilmore, and Pharaoh Brown with a couple of steps on Patrick Chung.

The ability to slow down the New England pass rush might be the single most important imperative for all future Patriots opponents.  On this play, the Patriots showed blitz, but backed out.

One significant adjustment that Cleveland made in its approach was a focus on quick decisions by Mayfield in the short passing game.  This was a double-edged sword.  On the plus side, this approach allowed Baker his high completion percentage and somewhat frustrated the pass rush.  This was mostly evident in the game’s first half when Mayfield was sacked just once, and completed 11 of 14 passes (78.6%), but for just 80 yards – which was the weakness in the scheme.  On more than one occasion, third wide receiver Antonio Callaway was running away from his defender on a go route.  But in all of those occasions, Baker had already decided where he was going with the football.

Realizing that Gilmore will always inhibit the production of your top receiving threat, future New England opponents should understand the value of a third receiver with deep-threat speed.  In this game it was Callaway causing problems for J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty – two very good corners, but not in Gilmore’s class.

Of course, whether your quarterback can hold the ball long enough to find that receiver is another issue.

One of the very interesting things that Cleveland did in New England was to deny the Patriot pass defense a clear set of targets.  I think they only did this once, but the concept is worth further exploration.

With 49 seconds left in the third quarter, Cleveland lines up with only one wide receiver (Odell Beckham) on the field.  They have three tight ends and running back Dontrell Hilliard.  There is no one in the backfield with Baker, as Beckham is part of a bunch of three receivers (Ricky Seals-Jones and Brown) to Baker’s right, and Hilliard and Harris wide to his left.

Without a bevy of wide receivers to focus on, New England responded with man coverage, but only against the three receivers bunched to the right.  On the offensive left side, they played zone.  With the Patriots rushing just three, and Mayfield understanding what New England was doing, he was able to wait long enough for linebacker Jamie Collins to drift toward the center of the field before delivering a strike to Demetrius Harris, who had settled in one of the soft spots of the zone.

That play gained 12 yards on third and two.

The bottom line is that there are opportunities here.  A team like Baltimore that will keep running the ball will give themselves the best advantage.  Moreover, any team that runs against New England as many as thirty times in a game will almost certainly quiet down the blitz tendencies – another thing I think Baltimore could do.

But it will still – at some point – come down to making plays in the passing game.  At some point, Lamar Jackson will have to make the same kind of read that Mayfield made, and throw to the right receiver against the right coverage.  And this is where I am not yet convinced.  Lamar has made strides, but he will have to show me he can make these kinds of reads.

Tomorrow night’s New England-Baltimore matchup is one of the most intriguing of the season’s first half.  The Ravens are not a team built for coming from behind.  If the Patriots get up on them early, it could spell trouble for Baltimore.  However, I also don’t think that New England is built to take 25-30 rushing plays against that vaunted defense.  If Baltimore stays close and keeps running, I think that will spell trouble for the Patriots.

With New England at 8-0, and Baltimore 5-2, this game could have significant consequences as far as playoff seeding goes.  By this time tomorrow night, we will know a lot more about both of these teams.